The tires were old and bald on the bike but it didn't much matter to Audrey. She was free! Her legs whipped those pedals for all they were worth and she felt the road's dips and bumps like she was walking barefooted over each inch. The wind wasn't doing much more than messing up her hair, which was twisted into haphazard braids her granny had pulled into questionable shape yesterday morning. Since then she'd been in lock down. Her momma wasn't coming home until tomorrow but they had to have the house in spick and span shape. Or something like that.
Autumn leaves floated down trying to catch her as she flew down the lane aiming for the river. She needed a dip in that water more than she needed air. Leastways that's what she declared to granny when she was finished with her chores. If she'd stayed another second granny might have found yet another thing for her to do.
She hadn't seen a soul since she'd got on her bike. It was dusk and the last of the summer's fireflies were dancing in the shadows of the forest trying to distract her. She shook her finger at them as she continued to propel herself to the river. There weren't many houses along the way but she'd half expected to see Sammy or Ralph when she'd near the forest. They must be in trouble again, she finally figured as she neared the dirt path that had the best access down to the stream.
Dirt puffed up as she skidded to a halt next to the brambling blackberry bushes that lined the creek. The gap in the bushes wasn't large but it'd been declared long ago the best point to enter the waters. The sandy shore changed every spring and by the end of summer there was always an official place the kids all knew to go. Besides there was an old tree near the dirt path that led down to the water that was the place she used to park her bike. Even though she knew that nobody would steal it she still painstakingly chained the bike to the trunk and secured it with her lock. She'd put the key under a flat rock all the kids used half a pace from the tree. Everyone knew where to hide their keys but she'd promised her granny to lock the bike. She knew she'd be paddled something fierce if granny found her bike unchained or heaven forbid it got stolen. When she lifted the stone she saw there was already a small key there.
Puzzled she looked around for one of the boys or their bikes. Shading her eyes with her palm she looked up and down the lane. No bikes or boys anywhere to be seen. Shrugging she covered the strange key with the rock and put her key inside her shoes as she stripped down. It wasn't the best place to hide a key but she didn't like the idea of putting her key right next to the odd key. It nagged at her -- that odd key -- but the water beckoned her far more than the mysterious key.
Her shorts were stripped off and folded on top of her shoes. The shirt joined the stack and she shivered as a cloud passed over blocking out the sun. Winter wasn't too far off and she knew school started soon. She was determined to get every ray of sunshine before that happened! Her swimsuit was old and the shoulder straps cut into her skin at times but there wasn't any money to buy her a new one this close to the end of the season. Granny promised they'd find her a new one by next summer. She didn't think she'd be still living with granny next year but it wasn't her business. She'd been told time and time again that her momma was getting better and they'd be a regular family soon. All she knew was granny didn't have much patience for children -- her own or her grandchildren. She'd heard her uncle tell that to someone on the phone last Sunday when she was supposed to be napping.
Like she'd be napping at her age? Granny had been sleeping out on the sun porch after her lemonade and her uncle had been talking really softly on the phone in the kitchen. It wasn't like she tried to hide it was just that she didn't make much noise. He'd said something about how he'd be taking her if momma never got out of the nuthouse. Shuddering, she tried to forget that nuthouse bit. Granny always said momma just needed rest a bit more than most women and that she was getting better all the time. Her uncle seemed to know more than Granny was her conclusion.
The sun was back warming her spine, reminding her why she'd come. The water was calling loudly as a drop of sweat ran down between her shoulder blades. Smiling she went to put her shoes and clothes under the blackberry bush that'd been nearly completely stripped of fruit. To her shock a stack of unfamiliar clothing was already in her favorite spot. She stumbled back a step and looked around cautiously. A trickle of worry worked its way through her joy at escaping the confines of housework and general. Chewing on her lower lip she considered the new oddity. The clothes weren't folded as neatly as hers and they looked a bit threadbare but they weren't adult clothing. The shoes were tattered old Keds with a double loop shoestring ties like she did. They were roughly the same size as her shoes. Looking at the doppelganger set of shoes and clothing still in her hands she wondered if she should head back to Granny's.
The water gurgled and bubbled mere feet from hers and she sighed. Resolutely she placed her clothing two bushes further away from the stranger's clothes and decided that it was not going to stop her from swimming. A bird swooped down and chattered at her from a nearby branch as she slowly worked her way through the brambles. A few branches tried to tear into her skin with their thorns but she mostly avoided them and headed to the water. The dirt soon gave way to smaller worn rocks and pebbles and she cautiously placed her bare feet on the smoothest ones. Sand took over the last bit to the river and her feet curled in relief at the forgiving yet hot sand.
Audrey looked for the kid that left clothing up under the bush and the mystery key in the key spot. There wasn't a sign of anyone either upstream or down. The heat of the day pushed at her and she walked through the layer of insects just above the water teasing the fish beneath. Her toes found the slimy shoreline and she quickly dove flat into the stream. Instantly the icy water covered her and she shivered as she surfaced in the middle of the slow moving river. Treading water at the deepest part of the stream she avoided touching the slick algae rocks below and felt refreshed as she lazily flipped onto her back floating with her eyes closed.
She was in heaven. The snowfall of the previous winter fed the stream. The chilled water was the best part of living at Granny's. All the aches and bruises from the chores were gone and the sun shining down on her freckled face gave her joy. Flipping her hands slowly in the water keeping her body in the middle of the water she drifted a bit down stream. The rapids weren't close and she enjoyed the feeling of the water pulling her towards the shore. Half-heartedly she kicked her feet and opened her eyes to see a blob of blue heading for her face.
Splashes all around her jerked her upright. She dropped her feet down to the bottom and turned to see a hail of bright colors flying towards her. The rocks on the bottom of the riverbed were sharp and she hopped from one to another until she found one that was smoother.
Hoots and hollers sang out and she saw Sammy and Ralph jumping up and down on the other side of the river. They lobbed water balloons at her and she shrieked at them.
"We got ya, Aud! WE got you!" Ralph was giggling and throwing rapidly. His balloons were missing her but Sammy was aiming and his were smacking her hard.
"What'd I do?" She snatched one of the balloons Ralph had tossed and whipped it back at him with a scream as she hit her target.
"You didn't come get us to go swimming!" Ralph's aim improved and one of his balloons hit her on her left shoulder.
Laughing she grabbed up another misfired balloon and slammed it into Sammy as he was lining up to lob another one at her. She giggled as it caught him full on the face. She dove under the water and swam out of range. Once on the other side she shook her self and waved.
"I didn't know I'd get free to swim!" She wiped the hair and water out of her face.
Sammy dove in and swam right for her. His hair plastered to his head and he looked like a sleek seal when he immerged from the river. Ralph ran to a large rock and cannon balled into the stream. His strokes weren't as smooth as Sammy's but he made his way over quickly.
Still giggling Audrey asked, "So where'd ya park your bikes?"
"Over by ol' man Gerdy's place." Ralph puffed out his words and rubbed a hand over his face.
"You knew your granny'd let ya come swimming." Sammy sounded smug.
She curled up in a ball and looked over her knees at Sammy. "I guess."
Ralph asked, "So you were surprised?"
"Just wondered whose clothes were in my spot." She admitted.
"What clothes?" Ralph looked confused.
"The clothes under the empty blackberry bush, silly!" Audrey shoved Ralph with a damp hand.
"What clothes?" Ralph stammered again.
Then Audrey caught a smile on Sammy's lips as he turned his head away from them. Seeing the smile she knew who'd put the clothes there.
"The clothes stacked under the blackberry bushes. They aren't yours, Ralph?" Audrey said softly.
"No. Who else knows that spot?" Ralph looked around frightened.
"I don't know, they must have been left by another kid. Let's go look for clues." Audrey brushed off the sand and raced back towards the bushes. The boys followed and Audrey hid her grin. Once they neared the bush Audrey dropped back and let Ralph look. Sammy stood next to Ralph and pretended to be shocked by the clothes.
When Ralph was bent over and still looking Audrey tweaked his ear and said, "Boo!"
Jumping up Ralph chased Audrey back to the river. Sammy laughed and said, "I got ya too!"
Giggling they splashed at each other in the cold river enjoying the last bits of summer.
-- Lydia Manx